Vancouver transit's Compass card system poses privacy concerns

| February 18, 2016
Photo: flickr/ GoToVan

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Translink's Compass card system in Vancouver has been a long time coming.

The plan to implement controlled gate access and smart fare cards was announced in 2009 by then-Premier Gordon Campbell. While the initial release date of the new system was set for 2013, significant delays due to ongoing technical difficulties pushed back the project and the general public wasn't given full access to Compass until November 2015.

Translink has given users many incentives for registering their card online -- a process which involves creating an account with their name, address and contact information. By doing so, a Compass card holder can set up an automatic reload system, pay online and protect their balance.

But registering a Compass card offers one more feature: tracking complete details of exact locations and times of transit use, down to the minute, which advocates for women's safety say could be very dangerous within an abusive relationship.

"The system contains detailed information about where people are when they tap in and when they tap out," says Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS) Executive Director Angela Marie MacDougall. "That is a concern for anybody as far as the ability to surveil and with privacy."

Translink has explained in its informational video series that this feature allows users to "see how much you've traveled."

However, MacDougall points out that in the hands of an abuser within an abusive relationship, this feature could also become a dangerous tool.

"It raises particular concerns for women in abusive relationships because of the nature of an abusive relationship around issues of power and control," she says. "Abusive partners will use a tactic of isolation which is in fact to keep track of where a woman is, where she goes, who she sees, what she does."

When asked to comment on the safety concern, Translink Media Relations Manager, Cheryl Ziola sent an email to rabble with an outline of Compass' privacy statement, highlighting the need to actually register a card with a password before someone can get access to this information.

When pressed for comment specifically in the case of abusive relationships Ziola said that "any customer concerned about providing any personal information has the option of paying cash for a Compass Ticket."

Compass isn't the only transit payment system of this kind in Canada and, in fact, MacDougall points out that the PRESTO payment system, which currently operates in the Greater Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas holds some of the same privacy concerns.

Kim Johnson, Media Relations for Metrolinx which runs PRESTO, explained to rabble by email that -- similar to Compass -- when users purchase a transit card they can choose to keep it anonymous or register it. Once registered, a PRESTO card identifies and tracks where a card was tapped on and tapped off of transit.

"Registered cardholders establish a unique username and password to access their online account to view their transaction history for the past three months of travel," she said.

Unfortunately, MacDougall points out that within relationships where power is severely imbalanced, an Internet password isn't necessarily a prohibitive measure.

"Not all women in an abusive relationship would be able to keep that information from an abusive partner," she says. "As with all passwords for women in an abusive relationship, they may not be able to keep that from their abusive partner and it poses particular concerns in terms of providing another tool for an abusive partner to maintain power and control over a woman in that relationship."

Moving forward, BWSS is working on a report on these issues that they will present to Translink in the near future.

"We would like to see Translink take issues of violence against women seriously," says MacDougall. "There's many problems with the Compass system and this is just another one."

 

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now rabble's News Intern.

Photo: flickr/ GoToVan

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